Perfect Pair: Danny Burstein & Bartlett Sher

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Danny Burstein and Bartlett Sher first met in an audition room. Sher was getting ready for the 2008 Lincoln Center Theater revival of South Pacific, for which he earned a Tony Award, and Burstein walked in to audition for Billis.

“I knew him, I knew his work, but I didn’t remember officially meeting him until then,” Sher says. “His audition was obviously pretty good.

“I went in to audition a total of six times for that show before I got the offer,” Burstein recalls. “Before my final callback, Bart came out and pulled me aside and said, ‘If Mary Rodgers asks you if you can roll your belly, just say yes,’ which made me feel great because I knew he was pulling for me. After that we got along famously.”

The pair teamed up for the fourth time with this season’s revival of Fiddler on the Roof, in which Burstein plays Tevye, the famous milkman from Anatevka. (They also collaborated on Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Golden Boy.) Burstein is nominated for a Tony Award for the sixth time for Fiddler, and he and Sher reflect on their work together over the years.

What is your first memory of seeing the other’s work. What was it and what do you remember about it?
Danny Burstein: I first saw Bart’s production of Light in the Piazza and thought it was magic from beginning to end. He obviously had been influenced by many great European directors, and I loved his boldness. I knew I wanted to work with him.
Bartlett Sher: I saw Drowsy Chaperone in Los Angeles before it came to New York, and he stood out pretty tremendously in that production. And I was extremely impressed by both his comic and dramatic chops. I was sitting next to Carol Burnett, and she liked him too.

What makes your collaboration work?
Burstein:
I think our relationship works because we focus on the work. It’s not about personalities; it’s always about making every moment as truthful and honest as possible. We enjoy exploring the text and I think we dare each other to be better.
Sher: Danny is, for me, a fellow traveler in the work. I can’t imagine any show where, if he belongs, I wouldn’t try to put him in it. He brings such truth, such emotional experience, heart, intelligence, and he’s such a great leader of a company, that it’s pretty hard not to want him in every show I do.

Why Fiddler?
Burstein: Why not? It’s one of America’s great musical theater masterpieces, as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.
Sher: Personally, I have a father and grandparents who were born in a shetl in Lithuania so some part of me wanted to use the experience of Sholem Aleichem and Fiddler, to have a conversation with them. It’s also truly one of the greatest musicals that I’ve ever experienced, and it does the thing that I love in musicals, which is balance the truth with the heightened glory of music. And a chance to explore a personal part of who I am, alongside expanding my work in the theatre, was something I couldn’t pass up.

What is one of your favorite memories of working together? 
Burstein: During South Pacific, there was an airplane effect that was supposed to happen late in the show as the soldiers sang a reprise of “Honey Bun.” The lights of the plane were supposed to fly directly over the audience as the sound designer rumbled the audience with actual low-flying airplane sounds. As hard as the designers and crew tried, the airplane effect just didn’t work. It was late in the rehearsal process, and everyone was worried. But that’s when Bart had a sudden inspiration and created this slow march of all the soldiers marching off to war. It turned out to be a brilliant effect and quite memorable and, truly, saved the day.
Sher: There’s a scene in Golden Boy where Seth Numrich, the golden boy, is about to face his great fight and he falls apart, and Danny, as his trainer, has to be there for him. And it was really one of the most beautiful acting moments I’ve ever seen on the stage. That was one of my favorite moments working with Danny. That, and helping me get through all the daughters in Fiddler—particularly Chava, and the challenge she poses to Tevye’s faith, are things that only the great actors can solve. Danny is someone who will walk alongside you into the heart of the most complex human experiences. So, those are my two favorites.

Danny, what is one thing you admire about Bart, and Bart, what is one thing you admire about Danny?
Burstein: His hair. And his innate desire to find the truth in every moment.
Sher: Danny’s a great dad. He’s a parent to two wonderful kids. That’s something I really admire about him.

Suiting by J. Hilburn